Jay Gangemi left the best part of his jump shot on a launching dock at Lake Ontario last June.
The best part of his jump shot was his velvety touch. But Gangemi, a junior forward on the Johns Hopkins University basketball team, lost it when he lost almost the upper third of his right index finger in a boating mishap near his home in Rochester, N.Y.
That Gangemi still plays basketball today -- and, more important, still has a future as a heart surgeon -- seems an extraordinary stroke of good fortune.
Once his finger had been smashed against a steel pier where the family docks its boat, several things happened that worked to Gangemi's favor.
The plastic surgeon of the family's choice was available immediately. The severed portion of the finger was located, put in ice and taken to the hospital (Gangemi admits he did not think of retrieving the severed portion until he was en route). The tip of the finger was reattached within 50 minutes of the accident.
Furthermore, the bone above the joint fortunately remained intact. Then the graft of the severed finger was a success. And his fingernail has even grown back.
In the eight months since his trauma, Gangemi has undergone a painful process of rehabilitation and adjustment. By his computation, Gangemi experienced 48,000 throbs of pain a day for a month -- "That's the kind of thing you do when you don't have anything else to do," he said. Even now, because of poor circulation, the finger is extremely cool to the touch, giving new meaning to the old phrase "cold shooting" at Hopkins.
Yet, when the Blue Jays (18-9) begin NCAA Division III tournament action at home tonight at 8 against Dickinson College (19-7), Gangemi figures to play a major role.
"I'm very happy just to be able to play now," Gangemi said. "When I did it in the summer, I didn't think I'd play. To be able to contribute to the team is the reward for me."
"It's miraculous," coach Bill Nelson said, "that he's able to do what he's done."
Making it back to the court is Gangemi's biggest victory. The price he pays on the court for his accident is an inconsistent shooting touch and reduced offensive efficiency.
He averages 10.9 points a game this season, down from 16.4 as a sophomore. He is shooting 39 percent from the floor, down from 48. His free throw percentage is down to 62.5 from 73.2. Last season, his game-high in points was 34. This year it's 23.
"Right now I'm playing the best I have this year," said Gangemi, who is 6 feet 3. "[But] it's taken a whole season to adjust. I realize I'm not the same shooter."
Gangemi's comeback started last fall with a "three-fingered" shot. His main concern was to protect the injured finger. He started by wearing bandages and splints, but eventually discarded them all.
"The first half of the year I was afraid to use the finger," he said. "I was afraid of getting hurt. I would shy away from taking the ball down the middle. I wouldn't reach in [on defense]. I wouldn't go for certain rebounds. I went through a lot of mind games with myself."
But he rediscovered his jump shot during the Christmas break back home in Rochester, and he's been "a much better player, a much different player" since then, said Nelson.
"My confidence really has come a long way," Gangemi said. "If there's one problem, it's consistency. But I can have a bad game now and not blame it all on the finger. I think I overcame it. I gave up using it as an excuse at Christmas time."
The only concessions Gangemi makes to his finger now are his repeated attempts to warm up the frigid digit. He can be sweating up a storm, but the index finger is as cold as the outdoors. "I blow on it a lot during games," he said.
Beyond basketball, Gangemi still plans to follow his father into medicine. Richard Gangemi is an internist in Rochester. Jay is in pre-med at Hopkins and intends to go to medical school.
When Gangemi's basketball career ends after next season, he will have further surgery to add a centimeter of skin to the tip of his finger. The hope is that it also will add feeling to the finger.
"This put a lot of things in perspective for me," he said. "I realized basketball, water skiing and tennis weren't the most important things."